BOGOTA, Colombia -- The U.S. ambassador to Colombia has recommended suspending
funding to this country's most elite air force unit, saying it has been stonewalling
an investigation into a bombing four years ago that killed 18 civilians.
Ambassador Anne W. Patterson also has pledged to help Colombian investigators
in their efforts to track down three U.S. citizens who allegedly participated
in the bombing of the tiny village of Santo Domingo in December 1998, U.S. congressional
The steps signal a U.S. resolve to force the Colombian military to comply with
basic human rights norms in exchange for continued American aid in fighting this
country's long and bloody internal conflict.
They are also an attempt to bring to a close one of the most notorious cases
of alleged human rights abuses involving the Colombian military, which in recent
years has dramatically improved its record of repression against civilians suspected
of guerrilla activity.
"I am very encouraged that despite the cover-up by some in the Colombian air
force, the U.S. ambassador is trying to see justice done in this case," said Sen.
Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has long monitored the case.
In recent communications with congressional and embassy officials, Patterson
said she has recommended that the State Department decertify the air force's 1st
Air Combat Command, the unit involved in the incident, for the organization's
failure to adequately investigate the bombing.
Under the so-called Leahy Amendment, U.S. aid and equipment can flow only to
those Colombian military units that have been certified as being free of human
rights violations, or who are actively taking steps to bring suspected violators
The U.S. has contributed nearly $2 billion to Colombia over the last several
years to combat drugs and fight rebels who have battled to take over the country
for nearly four decades. At least three Colombian army units have been decertified;
this would mark the first time the air force has faced such a drastic move.
Patterson's recommendation to remove the certification, which is expected to
be adopted by the State Department in the near future, would severely affect the
air unit, which accounts for 20% of the air force's combat capabilities and relies
on U.S. munitions and training for its operations.
The Santo Domingo incident began when a Colombian helicopter crew belonging
to the 1st Air Combat Command dropped a U.S.-made cluster bomb on the town during
a military operation against leftist guerrillas hiding in the jungle nearby, according
to an investigation by the Colombian inspector general's office.
The Times reported this year that military and court records show that two
U.S. companies, Occidental Petroleum and AirScan Inc., helped in the planning
and execution of the operation around Santo Domingo, which lies 30 miles south
of an oil pipeline operated by Los Angeles-based Occidental.
The Colombian helicopter's crew members have testified that they were acting
under guidance from U.S. citizens who were flying a surveillance plane belonging
to AirScan, which was patrolling the battlefield.
At the time, AirScan was under contract with the Colombian air force to patrol
the pipeline, the subject of frequent rebel attacks.
AirScan has denied any involvement in the operation, and a company official
declined to comment Friday. Occidental says it can neither confirm nor deny whether
it supplied food, fuel and planning facilities to the military on the day of the
Patterson's decisions are certain to step up pressure against both the Colombian
air force and the U.S. citizens involved in the case. The Coast Guard has opened
an investigation into whether one of those citizens, Joe Orta, who was allegedly
piloting the AirScan plane, was a military officer on active duty with the U.S.
Coast Guard at the time of the incident.
Colombian air force officials did not return calls for comment Friday. Orta
did not respond to a message left at his family's home; in the past the family
has declined to comment.
Patterson's recommendation comes at a time when the air force has come to play
an increasingly important role in the Colombian conflict, which pits leftist rebels
against the military and an illegal army of right-wing paramilitary fighters.
The air force, and especially the 1st Air Combat Command, has recently increased
its missions against the rebels, claiming to have killed as many as 100 at a time
As a whole, the air force receives between $30 million and $40 million a year
in U.S. aid, although it could not be determined Friday how much of that goes
directly to the 1st Air Combat Command, according to Adam Isacson, an expert on
the Colombian military with the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning
Washington think tank.
"If aid is cut off, it will cripple the air force for a while," Isacson said.
"It'd be huge."
There have been two parallel investigations of the incident. Just last month,
the Colombian inspector general's office, which acts as a sort of internal affairs
office for the government, issued a finding that two of the Colombian air force
helicopter crew members deliberately dropped the bomb on the town.
The office sanctioned pilot Capt. Cesar Romero and crewman Hector Mario Hernandez
with three-month suspensions from the military, the harshest administrative penalties
available under Colombian law. The sentence is subject to appeal.
The Colombian military's investigation into the incident, however, has little
to show other than thousands of pages of documents.
Over the years, Colombian air force Gen. Hector Fabio Velasco has emphatically
denied air force responsibility in the killings, first suggesting that a guerrilla
car bomb planted in the town detonated prematurely.
However, he has repeatedly changed his story. At first he denied that the air
force dropped any bombs during the operation, despite an internal report within
days of the Dec. 13 incident to the contrary. Later, he insisted that the bomb
was dropped at least a kilometer from town.
Finally, when Colombian and FBI forensic tests indicated that pieces of shrapnel
found in the bodies of the victims were probably fragments from a U.S.-made cluster
bomb, Velasco asserted that the guerrillas had somehow obtained a U.S. cluster
bomb and used it in the construction of their car bomb to implicate the air force.
Velasco's strong positions and public statements have put in doubt the integrity
of the military investigation, because the judge in the case is a lower-ranking
Nonetheless, Patterson indicated that the U.S. is partly to blame for the slow
pace of the investigation, congressional sources said.
Patterson acknowledged to congressional officials that the U.S. Embassy has
long misplaced a videotape taken by the AirScan plane on the day of the bombing
that contains both video and audio.
The Colombian military has a copy of the videotape, but it lacks audio. The
Colombian pilots accused of the bombing have maintained that on the day of the
attack, they heard the AirScan pilots warn another Colombian air force helicopter
involved in the attack to stop shooting at civilians. They have accused the Colombian
military of deliberately erasing the audio portion of the tape to turn them into
The Times asked for a copy of the tape earlier this year, but embassy officials
said they did not possess one.
In answering a Freedom of Information Act request, the State Department did
not include a copy of the tape among the released documents.
Patterson promised that the embassy would transcribe the tape as part of the
ongoing investigation, congressional sources said. She didn't explain how the
embassy had misplaced the crucial piece of evidence.
It is not known when the tape was found.
Patterson also told congressional officials that the embassy had located the
three men working for AirScan on the day of the bombing and is willing to help
transmit any request from the Colombian court system to the U.S. court systems
to question the men.
Human rights groups welcomed the United States' newfound commitment to the
"This position will give a big push to the investigation," said Tito Gaitan,
a lawyer for Minga, a Colombian nonprofit group that has represented the victims
in the case. "This is the time to rectify past failures and get to the truth."
Previous articles on the bombing of the Colombian village of Santo Domingo
accompany this story on The Times' Web site. Go to www.latimes.com/santodomingo.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times